After a seven-year legal fight waged by a prominent aboriginal-children’s advocate and the Assembly of First Nations against the federal government, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is finally hearing a case about the welfare of on-reserve aboriginal children.
The hard-won hearings began on February 25, 2013, and will resume on April 2. They will run a total of 14 weeks. At issue is whether discrepancies in welfare-services funding between on-reserve aboriginal children, whose care is paid for by the federal government, and off-reserve, which is funded by provincial and territorial governments, is tantamount to discrimination.
The Canadian government has spent about $3 million to try and get the case dismissed. On March 11 it lost yet another court appeal. Meanwhile the hearings had already started.
It all began back in 2007, when the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society filed a human-rights complaint alleging that on-reserve child-welfare services, which are paid for by the federal government, amounted to a good 22 percent less than those for other children. The complaint was filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which referred it to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, over which it has jurisdiction, the following year.
However the tribunal dismissed the case in 2011 without hearing it after the federal government argued successfully that a comparison between federal and provincial funding is not possible. This prompted the Family Caring Society and the AFN to file a lawsuit. On April 18, 2012, Federal Court ruled that the tribunal should not have dismissed the case and ordered the panel to hear the case on its merits. The federal government appealed and lost again.
“The society argued the funding gap has left on-reserve kids with less programming and less quality services, and often means kids on reserves are taken into care faster and more often than their off-reserve counterparts,” as the Winnipeg Free Press put it.
Now the case has come full circle, as it were, back to the tribunal for a full hearing. The case hinges on how successful child advocate Cindy Blackstock, who heads the Family Caring Center, and the AFN will be at arguing, among other things, that more First Nations children are placed in foster care than non-aboriginal children. Not only that, but recent studies have shown that the number of children in foster care is greater than the number of children brought into Canada’s residential schools system during its 150-year period of operation, they say.
Blackstock says that 30 to 40 percent of the numbers of children in foster care are indigenous, while that segment comprises just five percent of Canada’s child population at most, according to the Leveller.
“It remains unfortunate that the federal government continues to battle us in court on a fundamental issue of justice and equity for First Nations children,” said AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in a statement the day after the court’s ruling on the hearings. “It should not have to get to this. However yesterday’s decision is a welcome step by the Federal Court of Appeal and one that will ensure these important hearings continue before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.”
Atleo delivered opening statements at the tribunal’s first day of hearings on February 25. The hearings will go on until the summer. The Canadian government has 60 days to appeal the court ruling and try to get the tribunal’s case dismissed.